Isaac Asimov, Time Travel and 'The End of Eternity'

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The End of Eternity
By Isaac Asimov
Paperback, 256 pages
Orb Books
List Price: $15.99
Read An Excerpt

Science-fiction godfather Isaac Asimov published his classic time-travel novel The End of Eternity in 1955, and in a way, it's become lost in time itself over the years. Overshadowed by Asimov's famous Foundation and Robot series, The End of Eternity is mostly unknown to casual science-fiction fans. Yet serious devotees of Asimov's work consider it to be his single greatest novel.

The End of Eternity has been out of print and hard to find for a while, but that's been happily remedied with Tor Books' recent hardcover reissue and even more recent move to the various e-book formats.

The complicated plot of the book goes something like this: Our hero, Andrew Harlan, is an Eternal — a scientist operating from a tract of cosmic real estate known as Eternity. Eternity is a sort of bubble that exists outside of time and space. Or, in the metaphorical approach of the book, it's like an extratemporal elevator shaft running parallel to forward-moving Time.

Eternals can move up and down this shaft — "upwhen" and "downwhen" — getting off at stations in any century to enact Reality Changes. These changes alter the flow of human events toward outcomes producing "the maximum good for the maximum number."

As a going concern, though, Eternity has an HR problem. Despite their names, Eternals are mere humans, subject to aging in "physiotime." They age and die just like anyone else. They make mistakes. And fall in love.

Disclosing too much after this would spoil things, as much of the pleasure of Eternity comes from its old-fashioned mystery plotting. This might not be what you'd expect from Asimov, but the author actually wrote several mysteries and was a member of the prestigious Sherlock Holmes appreciation society, "The Baker Street Irregulars."

Still, it's safe to disclose a few story specifics. In the course of his work, Harlan falls in love with the fetching Noÿs Lambent, a beautiful aristocrat with her umlauts in all right places (writing about women was never Asimov's strong suit). Noÿs is from a century scheduled to undergo a Reality Change, which presents a dilemma for Harlan. If he effects the change, Noÿs may disappear entirely from the new Reality, or be replaced with an inferior analogue.

Eternity trades heavily in the proposal and resolution of quite a few time-travel paradoxes. This is a staple of science fiction, but here Asimov handles it with remarkable clarity. The book casually shuffles in mind-bending concepts from quantum physics and actually makes them work within the narrative, weaving in concepts like causality violations and infinite parallel universes.

Asimov never actually renders these things understandable — that would take several decades and a few doctoral programs. But he makes them appear understandable, at least until the end of the chapter. And that's the real trick, isn't it? The book employs time-travel elements to do what all good science fiction does — extrapolate scientific and social issues to various event horizons of the future.

Isaac Asimov was born in Belarus in 1920 and moved to Brooklyn with his family at the age of 3. He worked as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University and won numerous science-fiction awards for his writing.

Isaac Asimov was born in Belarus in 1920 and moved to Brooklyn with his family at the age of 3. He worked as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University and won numerous science-fiction awards for his writing. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Eternity's essential mission statement, after all, would have to be read as social engineering writ insanely large. What would actually happen, the book asks, if an eternal guardian entity were forever shielding us from our own mistakes?

It doesn't take too much lateral thinking to transpose Asimov's hard sci-fi musings into theological notions of destiny and free will. Or, going in the other direction, to matters of evolution and natural selection. If you remove adverse environmental conditions, would man keep evolving at all?

This is part of Asimov's particular genius. He is a master prestidigitator of notional misdirection. He keeps you so dazzled with the sci-fi flourishes — Temporal loops! Neuronic whips! — that you don't notice the bigger cosmic tricks he's producing from his other sleeve. It's a maneuver he uses time and time again in the Foundation and Robot books.

Eternity also works as a futuristic thriller and is particularly effective as a straight-up mystery novel. The last 30 pages of the book move with terrific velocity through a series of startling revelations. Asimov snaps together a dozen story elements cleverly obscured throughout the other chapters. Clearly, this is where Asimov's Sherlock habit pays off.

Glenn McDonald is an arts writer and movie critic with the Raleigh News & Observer and editor of NPR's Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me Daily News Quiz.

Excerpt: 'The End of Eternity'

The End of Eternity
By Isaac Asimov
Paperback, 256 pages
Orb Books
List Price: $15.99
Read An Excerpt

Andrew Harlan stepped into the kettle. Its sides were perfectly round and it fit snugly inside a vertical shaft composed of widely spaced rods that shimmered into an unseeable haze six feet above Harlan's head. Harlan set the controls and moved the smoothly working starting lever.

The kettle did not move.

Harlan did not expect it to. He expected no movement; neither up nor down, left nor right, forth nor back. Yet the spaces between the rods had melted into a gray blankness which was solid to the touch, though nonetheless immaterial for all that. And there was the little stir in his stomach, the faint (psychosomatic?) touch of dizziness, that told him that all the kettle contained, including himself, was rushing upwhen through Eternity.

He had boarded the kettle in the 575th Century, the base of operations assigned him two years earlier. At the time the 575th had been the farthest upwhen he had ever traveled. Now he was moving upwhen to the 2456th Century.

Under ordinary circumstances he might have felt a little lost at the prospect. His native Century was in the far downwhen, the 95th Century, to be exact. The 95th was a Century stiffly restrictive of atomic power, faintly rustic, fond of natural wood as a structural material, exporters of certain types of distilled potables to nearly everywhen and importers of clover seed. Although Harlan had not been in the 95th since he entered special training and became a Cub at the age of fifteen, there was always that feeling of loss when one moved outwhen from "home." At the 2456th he would be nearly two hundred forty millennia from his birthwhen and that is a sizable distance even for a hardened Eternal.

Under ordinary circumstances all this would be so.

But right now Harlan was in poor mood to think of anything but the fact that his documents were heavy in his pocket and tense, a little confused.

It was his hands acting by themselves that brought the kettle to the proper halt at the proper Century.

Strange that a Technician should feel tense or nervous about anything. What was it that Educator Yarrow had once said:

"Above all, a Technician must be dispassionate. The Reality Change he initiates may affect the lives of as many as fifty billion people. A million or more of these may be so drastically affected as to be considered new individuals. Under these conditions, an emotional make-up is a distinct handicap."

Harlan put the memory of his teacher's dry voice out of his mind with an almost savage shake of his head. In those days he had never imagined that he himself would have the peculiar talent for that very position. But emotion had come upon him after all. Not for fifty billion people. What in Time did he care for fifty billion people? There was just one. One person.

He became aware that the kettle was stationary and with the merest pause to pull his thoughts together, put himself into the cold, impersonal frame of mind a Technician must have, he stepped out. The kettle he left, of course, was not the same as the one he had boarded, in the sense that it was not composed of the same atoms. He did not worry about that any more than any Eternal would. To concern oneself with the mystique of Time-travel, rather than with the simple fact of it, was the mark of the Cub and newcomer to Eternity.

He paused again at the infinitely thin curtain of non-Space and non-Time which separated him from Eternity in one way and from ordinary Time in another.

This would be a completely new section of Eternity for him. He knew about it in a rough way, of course, having checked upon it in the Temporal Handbook. Still, there was no substitute for actual appearance and he steeled himself for the initial shock of adjustment.

He adjusted the controls, a simple matter in passing into Eternity (and a very complicated one in passing into Time, a type of passage which was correspondingly less frequent). He stepped through the curtain and found himself squinting at the brilliance. Automatically he threw up his hand to shield his eyes.

Only one man faced him. At first Harlan could see him only blurrily.

The man said, "I am Sociologist Kantor Voy. I imagine you are Technician Harlan."

Harlan nodded and said, "Father Time! Isn't this sort of ornamentation adjustable?"

Voy looked about and said tolerantly, "You mean the molecular films?"

"I certainly do," said Harlan. The Handbook had mentioned them, but had said nothing of such an insane riot of light reflection.

Harlan felt his annoyance to be quite reasonable. The 2456th Century was matter-oriented, as most Centuries were, so he had a right to expect a basic compatibility from the very beginning. It would have none of the utter confusion (for anyone born matter-oriented) of the energy vortices of the 300's, or the field dynamics of the 600's. In the 2456th, to the average Eternal's comfort, matter was used for everything from walls to tacks.

To be sure, there was matter and matter. A member of an energy-oriented Century might not realize that. To him all matter might seem minor variations on the theme that was gross, heavy, and barbaric. To matter-oriented Harlan, however, there was wood, metal (subdivisions, heavy and light), plastic, silicates, concrete, leather, and so on.

But matter consisting entirely of mirrors!

That was his first impression of the 2456th. Every surface reflected and glinted light. Everywhere was the illusion of complete smoothness; the effect of a molecular film. And in the ever-repeated reflection of himself, of Sociologist Voy, of everything he could see, in scraps and wholes, in all angles, there was confusion. Garish confusion and nausea!

"I'm sorry," said Voy, "it's the custom of the Century, and the Section assigned to it finds it good practice to adopt the customs where practical. You get used to it after a time."

Voy walked rapidly upon the moving feet of another Voy, upside down beneath the floor, who matched him stride for stride. He reached to move a hair-contact indicator down a spiral scale to point of origin.

The reflections died; extraneous light faded. Harlan felt his world settle.

"If you'll come with me now," said Voy.

Harlan followed through empty corridors that, Harlan knew, must moments ago have been a riot of made light and reflection, up a ramp, through an anteroom, into an office.

In all the short journey no human being had been visible. Harlan was so used to that, took it so for granted, that he would have been surprised, almost shocked, if a glimpse of a human figure hurrying away had caught his eyes. No doubt the news had spread that a Technician was coming through. Even Voy kept his distance and when, accidentally, Harlan's hand had brushed Voy's sleeve, Voy shrank away with a visible start.

Harlan was faintly surprised at the touch of bitterness he felt at this. He had thought the shell he had grown about his soul was thicker, more efficiently insensitive than that. If he was wrong, if his shell had worn thinner, there could only be one reason for that.

Noÿs!

Excerpted from The End of Eternity copyright © 1955 by the Estate of Isaac Asimov. Copyright © renewed 1983 by the Estate of Isaac Asimov. All rights reserved. A Tor Book Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

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